About 7 years ago I went through a Music Drought. Have you ever been in one of those? Months, or even years go by, and you realize that you haven’t listened to anything new, or even anything that you love and makes your spine tingle in ages? Yeah, well, that was me for a year or so during the year in which I got married and then we bought a house. About four or five months after moving in, when all the furniture had been arranged, it suddenly dawned on me that it had been ages since I’d listened to any new music. We needed to remedy that, and quicklike. I signed up for eMusic (this was before Spotify) and started finding new choral music. Stile Antico’s Music for Compline completely pushed me out of my music funk, and reminded me why I love the choral music I do, and why it touches me the way it does.
As I wrote the other day in my post about Evensong, Compline is the last service of the day in the Roman Catholic offices. It comes from the same word as “complete” and it literally completes the day. There are times when I imagine that the life of a monk or a nun would have been quite a lovely one, being surrounded by this kind of music all the time, and I can imagine myself walking in the darkness into the cathedral or church, and literally letting my worries of the day fall away as the music washes over them. What stress has power when you’ve got these harmonies combating it?
Compline merged with Vespers when Cranmer put together the Book of Common Prayer, and in Protestant denominations (like Lutheran and Anglican) it is now the Evensong service that provides this end-of-day period of reflection. Interestingly, in the Armenian church as well as some other Eastern Orthodox denominations, they have two services, one called the hour of Peace, followed by the hour of Rest. I like the idea of an entire set of services being devoted to peace and rest.
So that brings us back to Music for Compline which is a perfect album to play at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the day, or really any time of the day. It contains music by the Granddaddies of English polyphony, including Byrd and Tallis, but it also has music by John Sheppard, a composer I’ve been guilty of neglecting simply because the other guys are so much more prolific, there is so much more of their music available, and gosh darnit, there are only so many listening hours in the day.
John Sheppard was an early Tudor composer, living until 1558, and he was most prominent under the reign of Mary Tudor. He wrote masses, and music for the Protestant services under the reforming Edward VI, but he is most known for his compositions for the Sarum Rite, which was an order of service created in the late 11th century in Salisbury. The bishop there, Osmund, was a Norman (this is only a decade or so after the Conquest) and he created a service blending together the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon traditions with that of Norman France, which was more Roman. After the initial break with Rome, the Sarum rite had continued to be in use up until Edward, who replaced it with the services in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. But under Mary, the service came back, and it needed fresh music.
Enter John Sheppard, and his prolific compositions for the service. Poor guy wound up dying at a very inconvenient time, though – right around the time of Mary Tudor. He was sent liveries to wear both at her funeral, and at the coronation of Elizabeth I, and he had been dead already for going on a month.
Still, I’m going to make a concerted effort to listen to more of his music. Stile Antico (which means essentially “old music” and is the way early music was described after the 17th century) is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, and they are doing so with a series of concerts, and re-releasing some of their early albums. Music for Compline was their first recording, and it’s worth picking it up for a sublime introduction to Sheppard, as well as some of the more famous composers of the same time.
And for fun, here’s Stile Antico’s Tiny Desk Concert, which is awesome.